13 November 2005

Martin Pipe is a thief. For years he has openly and unashamedly stolen other people’s ideas and branded them into the genius that is his own. Yesterday’s remarkable resurrection of Our Vic in the Paddy Power Chase goes back to a theft in 1981.

That was the year when Pipe saddled Baron Blakeney to win the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham, the first major success of a 15-championship training career which now includes seven of the last 10 Paddy Power Gold Cups. But Baron Blakeney had problems with his jumping. Back then the great guru was Charles Radclyffe at Bampton. Pipe did not just send Baron Blakeney there. He went himself.

What he saw was the “loose school” form of equine jumping education. Pipe paced out the dimensions, went back to Nicolashayne and built a loose school of his own. This season it has been a central part in the Pipe team’s long sustained efforts to put the confidence back into Our Vic’s limbs and head.

For it was last December on this very same Cheltenham track that Our Vic lay for dead after a crashing fall at the final fence. His physical bruises took months to heal but two abysmal rounds at Cheltenham and Aintree in March and April showed that the mental damage was more permanent. He had a summer rest. We always knew the Pipe team could get him back to fitness, but could they banish the doubts that had lodged between his ears.

At his stables last week Pipe was both self critically acknowledging the mistake of running Our Vic at all after his bad experience in December and self confidently predicting that the schooling operations over which Jonathan Lower had presided had restored the sap to the big horse’s brain. In the paddock beforehand he looked a sporting print of perfection but 18 runners round the helter skelter that is Cheltenham’s two and a half mile track is no easy examination. Especially with a setting sun.

The glare was so bad that there were 15 minutes of delay while anxious stewards stood by the fences into the straight squinting towards the golden ball lowering over Cheltenham town directly in the path of the oncoming field. Standing down there was enough to give a spectator the cramps. But if it was getting to Timmy Murphy on Our Vic he gave precious little sign of it.

But then coolness is at the centre of the Murphy riding virtues. Earlier yesterday he had already shown it twice with winners for Pipe on Not Left Yet and Standin Obligation, both of them in the green and blue ‘Our Vic’ colours of David Johnson. Both of them had mountains of money on them to heap the pressure on a jockey’s shoulders. Even within seconds of pulling up on Standin Obligation, he was composed enough to give his answer to the TV “pressure” question. “It’s important,” he said with quite remarkable sang froid and enviable lack of heavy breathing, “to ride the horse and not the occasion.”

This he proceeded to do quite beautifully on Our Vic, a big, almost lolloping horse who was immediately taken up with the leaders and given space at his fences. He knew and we knew that a fully fit Our Vic would have the power to grind down this field. But too much hassle could snap that fragile confidence, ruin all that work back home and probably wreck the horse’s chances forever.

Over the third last he came, the rhythm steady, the arc of the jump secure. On to the second last and the aptly named Redemption is becoming a live threat on the outside. But Redemption has too much momentum, cannot hold his balance on landing, capsizes and leaves a cursing Carl Llewellyn with one of racing’s might-have-beens. Up front Murphy and Our Vic have the race just in their keeping. But so they had last December. They now faced destiny as well as glare.

They had three lengths in hand over the grey Kandjar D’Allier, Fondmort and the teak-tough Monkerhostin were trying to close. Murphy leant forward, reins loose into the leap. Our Vic shifted a touch left but was over safely. The grey could not take him. Monkerhostin, his early progress impeded by a bad mistake at the fifth, closed but was still two and a half lengths adrift at the line. Our Vic’s and indeed Murphy’s redemption was complete.

For a year ago he was only hanging on to his new job with Johnson by his fingernails and the four-timer he had on this very day made him a dramatically relieved man. Now he was a confident victor giving praise to others. “All credit,” he said “must go to Johnny Lower and the lads in the yard as they have put a tremendous amount of work into him and to the boss for bringing him back in such good form again.”

Pipe fussed around yet another Cheltenham winner, thanking the vets, the physios and all his team. “The horse was at death’s door at one time,” he said, “it has taken a long time to get him right but the plan has come together. We always knew he had the ability, it has just taken time to get the confidence back.”

If the man’s a thief, he’s a sinner even those “stolen” from can soon forgive. For yesterday reminded us that his “thefts” have developed into the greatest winner-producing system that jump racing has ever seen. Some criminal, some crime.

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